Will voters get sixth shot at supermajority for taxes?

Washington Policy CenterJanuary 29, 2014 

How would you define the undisputed will of voters? Is it passing in every county of the state? Is it passing in 44 of the state’s 49 legislative districts (90 percent)? Is it receiving more votes than either President Obama or Gov. Inslee in a blue state? Is it going 5-for-5 at the ballot box during the past 20 years?

If the answer is yes, then it’s clear Washingtonians want a legislative supermajority vote to raise taxes, or voter approval.

The question remains: Will voters get the final opportunity to put that policy into the state’s constitution? We got a good look Tuesday in the Senate Ways & Means Committee when a public hearing was held on SJR 8213: Amending the Constitution to require a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature to raise taxes.

The reason we are having this conversation yet again is because, last February, the state Supreme Court overturned the five-time voter-approved requirement for tax increases to receive a supermajority vote of the Legislature or voter approval. It did so with a 6-3 ruling.

In the past, when the Court has invalidated a law passed by the people, the Legislature has sought to implement what the people want (Initiative 695, reducing car tab costs, and I-747, limiting property tax increases, are recent examples).

Although the Court struck down the state’s decades-old statutory supermajority for taxes requirement, the justices were clear they were not ruling on the “wisdom” of the policy itself. Instead, they said the people should decide:

“Our holding is not a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority for passage of tax legislation. Such judgment is left to the legislative branch of our government. Should the people and the Legislature still wish to require a supermajority vote, they should do so through a constitutional amendment.”

SJR 8213 would allow the Legislature and people to make that decision.

There are nearly two dozen supermajority requirements currently in the state constitution. The provisions have been placed there to require a high vote threshold for certain government actions.

Those restrictions appear to be policy choices. The most recent was added by lawmakers and voters in 2007 with the requirement for a three-fifths legislative vote to access funds in the budget stabilization account.

It’s clear that supermajority vote requirements are not undemocratic. In most cases, they are not even controversial.

Requiring a supermajority vote in the Legislature to increase taxes is not unique to Washington. Prior to the Court’s ruling, 18 states (counting Washington) had some form of supermajority vote requirement for tax increases.

Of the states with supermajority tax limitations, only the requirements in Washington and Wisconsin were ordinary law. The requirements in all other the states are part of the state constitution.

Voters in Washington have enacted or affirmed the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases five times during the past 20 years:

 • 2012: I-1185 — passed statewide with a 64 percent yes vote and approval in 44 of the 49 legislative districts.

 • 2010: I-1053 — passed with a 64 percent yes vote.

 • 2007: I-960 — passed with a 51 percent yes vote.

 • 1998: Referendum 49 — passed with a 57 percent yes vote (affirmed provisions of I-601).

 • 1993: I-601 — passed with a 51 percent yes vote.

Although the Supreme Court invalidated this taxpayer protection as ordinary law, its ruling did not negate the fact that, on five separate occasions, voters have demanded this requirement, most recently with the statewide passage of I-1185 with a 64 percent vote and approval in 44 of the state’s 49 legislative districts.

Lawmakers should give voters the sixth and final opportunity to consider this policy as a constitutional amendment.

Jason Mercier is the director for the Center for Government Reform. He works for the Tri-Cities office of the Washington Policy Center.

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